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Note of the Day – May 20 (John 4:10-14)

John 4:10-14

Having discussed the use of zwh= (“life”) in the discourses of chapter 3, we now turn to the discourse of Jesus with the Samaritan woman in chapter 4. This draws upon an encounter episode (or tradition), like that involving Nicodemus in 3:1-21. The dialogue format of the chapter 4 discourse is more complex, with considerably more interaction between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. We may outline the passage as follows:

  • Narrative setting (vv. 1-6a, with vv. 1-3 providing the transition from 3:22-36)
  • Historical tradition—encounter episode (vv. 6b-9) established between Jesus and the Samaritans (esp. the Samaritan woman at the well)
  • Discourse #1—Jesus and the Woman
    • Central saying by Jesus (v. 10)
    • Reaction by the Woman (vv. 11-12)
    • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 13-14)
    • Reaction by the Woman (v. 15)
    • Exposition by Jesus—Messianic dialogue (vv. 16-26)
  • Historical tradition (continued)—encounter episode developed between Jesus and the Samaritans (vv. 27-30)
  • Discourse #2—Jesus and the Disciples
    • Central saying by Jesus (v. 32)
    • Reaction by the Disciples (v. 33)
    • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 34-38)
  • Narrative conclusion (vv. 39-42)

Thus we may say that there are two (parallel) mini-discourses which comprise the larger narrative. The parallelism is obvious enough from the opening verses:

  • Jesus asks the woman for something to drink (v. 7)
    • He states that he has “living water” (v. 10)
  • The disciples ask Jesus to eat something (v. 31)
    • He states that he has “food to eat which you have not seen” (v. 32)

Today, we are interested in the first discourse (with the Samaritan woman)—the main saying by Jesus (v. 10), the woman’s reaction (vv. 11-12), and exposition by Jesus (vv. 13-14). Here is the central saying, following upon Jesus’ initial request for something to drink (“Give me to drink”, v. 7):

“If you had seen [i.e. known] the gift of God, and who is the (one) saying to you, ‘Give me to drink’, you would (have) asked him, and he would (have) given to you living water [u%dwr zw=n].” (v. 10)

Twice the verb di/dwmi (“give”) is used, along with the related noun dwrea/[n] (“gift”). This is important to keep in mind, with reference to the repeated use of the same verb (di/dwmi) in chapter 3 (vv. 16, 27, 34-35, cf. the previous note). Comparison with 3:34-35 is helpful for an understanding of the saying in v. 10:

  • (God) the Father “has given” into the Son’s hand (3:35)
    — “the gift of God” (4:10a)
  • The Son “gives the Spirit” (3:34)
    — “he would give you living water” (4:10b)

This strongly indicates an association between the Spirit and “living water”. However, the reaction of the woman in vv. 11-12 makes it clear that she has not understood this, but rather takes the idiom “living water” in its traditional sense—i.e. as running water (from a river or spring), contrasted to the water stored in a well or pond (Hebrew <yY]j^ <y]m^, Lev 14:5-6, 50-52; 15:13; Num 19:17; Song 4:15). Already in Jer 17:13, this idiom has been applied in a symbolic sense, referring to the life which comes from God, who is the source of life. Moreover, flowing (i.e. “living”) water was used frequently, in an ethical (and spiritual) sense, in Wisdom literature, and/or in relation to the Torah within Jewish tradition—cf. Prov 13:14; 18:4; Sirach 24:21-29; CD 19:34, etc. There are reasonably close parallels to Jesus’ language and imagery e.g., in Isa 55:3 and Sir 24:21.

The Samaritan woman’s reaction, and the misunderstanding which marks it (a typical element of the Johannine discourses), is expressed in verse 11:

“(My) lord, you hold no (pail for) taking up (water), and the well is deep—(from) where, then, (would) you hold this ‘living water’?”

In verse 6a, the word phgh/ was used, referring to a (flowing) spring or fountain of water; by contrast, here in verse 11, the word is fre/ar, a pit or cistern dug into the ground. The idea is certainly that of a well dug deep into the ground which taps into the spring/fountain of water. From the woman’s standpoint, she knows only of the well (fre/ar); if there is a spring of flowing (i.e. “living”) water, it lies deep below, and she has no way of accessing it. This is the basis of her question to Jesus, wondering how he, from were he is sitting (at the well), could possibly have access to “living water”. The question in verse 12 may have been intended in a light-hearted or joking manner, asking whether Jesus was “greater than our father Ya’qob {Jacob} who gave us th(is) well”. For the Gospel writer, however, it is a prescient question, forshadowing the exposition of Jesus which follows, beginning with verses 13-14:

“Every one drinking out of this water [i.e. from the well] will thirst again; but whoever should drink out of the water which I will give him will not (ever) thirst into the Age, but (rather) the water which I will give him will come to be in him a spring/fountain [phgh/] of water leaping (up) into (the) Life of the Age.”

We find again the use of the word phgh/ (also in v. 6, cf. above), referring to a spring/fountain which is the source of flowing (i.e. “living”) water. Only now it has been internalized, given a spiritual interpretation (and application). For the person (believer) to whom Jesus gives this water, it comes to be in [e)n] him—that is, inside or within—as a perennial spring (phgh/) constantly providing water. It is no longer a question of drinking water to quench thirst, but of having no thirst at all, because of the living water coming up from within. This “leaping” up (vb. a%llomai) of the living water begins now, in the present, and continues on into the Age to Come (ei)$ to\n ai)w=na); moreover, it is identified with the expression “Life of the Age” (ei)$ zwh\n ai)w/nion) which we encountered in chapter 3 (cf. the previous note), and which is typically translated as “eternal life”.

As discussed above, the “living water” which Jesus gives is to be identified with the Spirit. The statement in 3:34, along with other passages in the Gospel, allows us to assume this. But it also is confirmed by what follows in this very discourse, within the dialogue-exposition of vv. 16-26—especially the central exposition by Jesus in vv. 21-24. I will be discussing this in the next daily note.

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